“I love this town.”
The declaration comes from Jack Connors as he looks out at the sweeping view from his 60th-floor corner office at the top of the Hancock tower, literally the highest point in the city — a metaphor if there ever was one.
There’s Back Bay so far below, the Charles River, the skyscrapers of the Financial District, the harbor glistening in the distance, the airport beyond it. He’s spent 15 years in this suite of offices watching a once-provincial city prosper unlike almost any other. He’s been anything but a mere bystander to its success.
Connors has sat atop Boston as the ultimate confidant to the city’s most powerful politicians and business leaders. He’s chaired some of the most prestigious nonprofit boards and raised unfathomable amounts of money. He’s connected people to each other and to causes. There’s a certain type in town whose self-worth gets a boost when his familiar number with the four zeros appears on the phone, his assistant cheerily asking, “Do you mind holding the line for Jack?” It’s a safe bet that few people ever said no.
Connors, at 79, with a fortune made from founding and selling a pair of successful businesses, isn’t exactly ready to retire.
But there’s another metaphor unfolding this week, one that quietly signals an inevitable and seismic change in the business and civic life of Boston. Connors is leaving the Hancock building, descending from the sky to new street-level offices a few blocks away. And in doing so, he’s making clear what many have already known: He is focusing vastly more of his time on one very specific cause: Camp Harbor View, the increasingly ambitious battery of programs he founded to help the poorest kids in Boston.
In a racially divided city with a yawning wealth gap, there’s too much work to do to stop now. The ultimate insider, Connors was once on the outside, a product of working-class Roslindale and Dedham who drove a taxi to pay his way through college. He hasn’t forgotten what it was like. He keeps his old hack license in the office.
“It’s still a city of haves and have-nots,” he says. “We still deserve the label of racist more than I’d like us to.”
Scoff if you must, but Connors, a devout Catholic, appears driven by true humility in the face of his material success.
“The Jewish faith calls it tikkun olam,” he says, the concept of repairing the world through charity and social justice. Impressive, coming from a silver-haired, ruddy-cheeked man who is every bit a product of Irish Boston.
Along with a dozen or so employees of Camp Harbor View and his family investment office, Connors is relocating to a mansard-roofed townhouse on Newbury Street. Still tony, but certainly more terrestrial.
The new office is just a block down the street from where he and three colleagues opened advertising agency Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos in 1968, each putting up $1,500, though Connors had to borrow $1,000 of it from his father.
He says he’s not one for nostalgia, but Connors admits, “It feels like I’m going home.”
Connors is making the move now because his five-year lease at the tower is expiring and the other tenant on the floor, private equity firm TA Associates, wanted the space. Of course, optics are important, too, when you’re working to help children of color with few resources. A monolithic skyscraper clad in reflective glass isn’t exactly approachable.
David D’Alessandro, the former chief executive officer of the eponymous insurance company that built the Hancock, said the building, now called 200 Clarendon, makes sense for masters-of-the-universe hedge funds and private equity firms, but Connors can be effective without the prestigious address or jaw-dropping views.
“It doesn’t matter where Jack Connors is. People will come to him,” said D’Alessandro. “All of us ex-CEOs are by the wayside, but somehow he’s the person everyone goes to.”
(Disclosure: I worked for D’Alessandro when he was Hancock’s CEO and occupied an office one floor below Connors’, with a similarly stunning panorama.)
Connors, who sold Hill Holliday to Interpublic Group in 1998 and stayed on until 2006, has long been a unique combination of power broker, sage, and unofficial adviser to mayors, cardinals, and CEOs. He’s also one of the most civic-minded executives in Boston.
He spent 16 years as chairman of Partners HealthCare (now Mass General Brigham), first joining the Brigham and Women’s Hospital board after realizing that his mother was born in a tenement house one block from where the predecessor Peter Bent Brigham hospital would later be built. He put in two terms as chairman of the board of trustees at Boston College, his alma mater. And he remains active on several boards, including Campaign for Catholic Schools, where he’s been chairman since Cardinal Sean O’Malley asked him to get the revitalization effort off the ground almost two decades ago.
It was around the time Connors left Hill Holliday that Mayor Tom Menino, frustrated by rising violence, vented to him that Boston desperately needed a place where kids could go as an alternative to the streets, especially in the summer. Not long after, Connors pitched Menino on creating a camp on Long Island in Boston Harbor, on a field adjacent to the old Fort Strong. He remembered the spot from visits to the nearby hospital on the island with his mother.
“If you give me 20 acres for $1 a year, I’ll get you a camp for kids in the city and raise $10 million to build it,” Connors recalls telling the late mayor.
Camp Harbor View opened in less than a year, in July 2007. It provides no-cost summer recreation and leadership training and year-round family support services to kids from lower-income neighborhoods.
Connors, who is chairman, and his team have raised more than $130 million for the organization since Menino put the bug in his ear.
“Jack has an acute appreciation that his ancestors came from Ireland with nothing in their pockets,” said Mike Sheehan, who took the helm at Hill Holliday after Connors stepped down and later became CEO of the Globe.
Hill Holliday left Newbury Street for the Hancock in 1980, initially taking the 39th floor and later expanding up several floors. Image had a lot to do with that relocation, too.
“We were then competing with New York and Chicago shops, and most of them were in high-rises,” said Anne Finucane, who spent 14 years at the firm as a senior executive and is now vice chairman at Bank of America. “We needed to show we had the resources to serve national clients.”
Connors leased his digs on the Hancock’s top floor after he stepped down from the agency. (Technically, the equivalent of two additional stories with building mechanical systems are above him. The observatory was closed to the public for security reasons after 9/11 and later converted to offices.)
With windows facing the Charles River and Boston Harbor, Connors, dressed in a sweater, dress shirt, and slacks, shows off vast swaths of the city and beyond. There are the landmarks: the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, the Great Dome of MIT along Memorial Drive, Trinity Church in Copley Square. And there are more recent additions like the glass office blocks in the Seaport and the Encore casino in Everett.
“On a clear winter day, you can see the White Mountains,” Connors says.
Boston was a much different place when he moved into the building — far more parochial, the scars from the busing riots unhealed, its economic future uncertain. Twice, Connors recalls, he couldn’t get a membership at the elite Somerset Club despite being put forward by two heavy hitters, Mass General president Dr. James Mongan and Tom Winship, the former Globe editor in chief. “Too Irish,” Mongan and Winship were told.
The city Connors loves has changed, and the guy who couldn’t get into the Somerset Club could probably buy it now if he wanted to.
But there’s a lot of unfinished business, especially when it comes to race and inequality of opportunity. Though he admires John F. Kennedy, Connors takes issue with something the president often said: A rising tide lifts all boats.
“It’s a wonderful phrase. But the rising tide didn’t lift all the boats,” Connors says. “It’s way past time to address that.”
Connors has slowed down a bit — “It’s 9 to 4:30, not 6 to 6,″ he says of his five-day-a-week routine — but the work he’s doing for the Catholic schools and Camp Harbor View is his way of giving back to the city that was very good to him.
And he has no intention of stopping, though who would begrudge him more time with his wife, Eileen, and their four adult children and 13 grandchildren.
“I see retirement as a four-letter word,” Connors says. “I love the action. I still do. Now it’s all about helping others.”